Pope Francis Against the Self-Referential Church


Pope Francis seems already to have introduced a new term into Catholic discourse: self-referential Church.  At least, if he did not originate it, he has certainly popularized it.  I, at any rate, had not heard it before I heard it from him.

According to the Pope (and to then-Cardinal Begoglio), the self-referential Church is not a good thing.  The Church must not be closed in on itself, preoccupied solely with its own inner life. If it is to be healthy, it must be reaching out beyond itself.  In one of his early homilies he offered a new twist on the idea of Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  Of course, the Pope said, he is seeking entrance, entrance into men’s hearts.  But, the Pope added, he sometimes also thinks that Jesus is knocking on the door of the Church, wanting out–meaning not, of course, that Jesus wants to get away from the Church, but that he wants the Church to bring him to those who are outside.


In making this argument, Pope Francis is pretty well in continuity with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as with the Second Vatican Council.  The Council was a formative experience for both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.  The spirit of that Council (the real spirit of it, not the bogus one sold by those who want the Church to change fundamental teachings on faith and morals) was one of reaching out to the modern world.  The Council fathers thought the Church needed to be in dialogue with the modern world and not simply seeking to protect itself from the disorders in the modern world.  And this dialogue was obviously very important to both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Both of them emphasized it repeatedly.  It seems that Pope Francis is on the same page on this question.

Some Catholics might tend to be irritated or irked by this internal call (coming from the highest levels) to “dialogue” with the modern world, the world outside the Church.  Why, they might ask, is such dialogue necessary?  What is to be gained by it?  The Church, after all, claims to have the Truth–if not about all things, then about the most important things (God, salvation, morality), and these are the things with which the Church is most properly concerned.  So what is there to talk about?  Socrates engaged in dialogue with others, but he was just a man seeking truth with other men.  The Church was founded by the Truth and has been entrusted with the Truth.  Preach the Gospel, set a good example of living it, and let the world take it or leave it.

There are a couple of problems with this view, and a couple of reasons why the Church should, as John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis urge, overcome self-referentiality and take part in a dialogue with the world.  First, while the Church does possess the Truth about the highest things, it is not as if there is nothing to be gained at all from talking to those who are not in the Church.  We believe as Catholics that human nature was wounded but not utterly degraded by the Fall.  From this it follows that instances of the good, true, and beautiful can be found even in non-Christian cultures.  As J.R.R. Tolkien put it (and he was no softy in terms of commitment to Catholic orthodoxy) “the mind of man is not compound of lies.”  This was the very reason that Tolkien loved and thought his soul and mind were enriched by the study of the old, northern, pagan myths.  For that matter, the Church fathers studied Greek philosophy and found it useful in understanding the way things are and in understanding the faith itself.  This approach, moreover, has a root in the Bible.  There no less an authority than St. Paul admonishes us to meditate on whatever is noble, lovely, and excellent.

Second, precisely because the Church has the Truth about God, it is called to evangelize the world.  This means speaking to those outside the Church and offering them the faith.  But simply as a matter of rhetorical prudence (to say nothing of good manners) it is a sound practice to listen to people as well as talking to them.  Otherwise, there are not likely to listen to you.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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